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Reading the Tea Leaves in Hawaii

Nestled in the tropical volcanic regions of the Big Island of Hawaii sits local artisan Eva Lee's tea orchard. In the Aloha State, which has come to be known for its premium Kona coffee, she and a handful of other entrepreneurial advocates are giving root to a new and experimental agricultural industry -- native-grown and processed Hawaii tea.

Hawaii tea is only about five years old and remains largely untried, with the current crop occupying less than eight acres.

GROUNDS FOR OPTIMISM. In need of new plants to diversify the region's agricultural economy, the movement began as a research effort by the U.S. Agriculture Dept. and the University of Hawaii, after horticulturist Francis Zee found that Camellia sinensis tea plants flourish in the tropical climate and volcanic soil. At high elevations, tea bushes receive a healthy dose of sun in the afternoon, while the cold evenings intensify taste.

Finding a crop that grows well in Hawaii is only a small part of the quest. History has demonstrated that making crops economically viable can be a daunting challenge. Despite the lush growing conditions, Hawaii's burdensome transportation overheads have made competition at the commodity level almost impossible. This has meant an emphasis on specialty-grown gourmet products for which consumers are willing to pay higher prices.

The phenomenal success of Kona coffee -- and the virtual extinction of large plantations -- highlight the need for niche-market, brand-oriented business models. Kona coffee, grown only in a few small areas, owes its allure to the production method: Farms are small, and the plants are generally tended by hand. In the mass market, it would be difficult for such methods to be competitive. But to gourmets willing to pay the price, Kona offers coffee connoisseurs unique taste and quality.

BREW OF CHOICE. The initial high-quality of many early tea experiments has left some wondering whether the crop may be the next Kona coffee. And they have reason to be optimistic. Tea is the No. 2 beverage in the world after water, the demand for its antioxidants and other nutritional benefits is at an all-time high, agro-tourism is on the rise, and Hawaii is free of many of the diseases that have ravaged tea plantations across Asia.

Yet all the potential in the world isn't enough to allow firm predictions about the commercial success of Hawaii tea, which isn't yet available to the public.

"We're still at the dreaming stage right now," says Byron Goo, whose business consults with growers and researchers to teach them how to discern between different tea types and qualities. "The promise and hope is there, but the research and numbers are not." The long-term survival of the fledgling industry, Goo maintains, will rely on the ability to create something completely unique.

ARTISAN'S TOUCH. With only five years of tea-growing experience in Hawaii, the task of developing this unique product falls smack in the hands of researchers and small local growers such as Eva Lee.

Unmotivated by money -- Lee insists this isn't something you do for a quick buck -- these artisans have a vested interest in putting the necessary time and effort into creating quality.

Lee says Zee's approach of incorporating tea with culture and lifestyle has attracted a lot of artisans to the business. "People find that their lifestyles go very much hand in hand with growing tea on their properties, and they're doing it with a sort of artisan's consciousness."

GROWING CONCERN. With no promise of financial compensation, many of these growers find motivation in the desire to create something from nothing and to be a part of a phenomenon larger than themselves. "We all aspire to become a very unique addition to Hawaii's economy," says Lee. Adds Mike Riley, a fellow grower: "I would like to be a part of seeing an industry develop."

The Hawaii Tea Society, of which Lee is now president, was born out of this communality. It was created about a year ago to encourage and promote Hawaiian-grown and -processed tea, to promote an appreciation for the cultural heritage behind various teas, and to maintain a "spirit of cooperation" among members to further develop Hawaii's tea culture and industry.

For now, and probably for the next five-or-so years, Hawaii tea will remain in the hands of these artisan growers and researchers who are slowly working to perfect the science. "For the people involved locally, it's a passion of theirs...a lot of little players investing whatever kind of resources they have and following their dream," Goo says.

VISIONS SPLENDID. For Riley, this means continuing with what he calls "the tea experiment." Now that it has been shown that Hawaii can grow tea, the next step is the art of tea-processing -- which remains unbroken ground. "It's not a product yet that we can say is going to be world-class, because of our inexperience," he admits.

"Who is going to bring tea from Hawaii to the forefront? It's the artisan," Lee says. "Tea needs to be approached with patience and sensitivity and creativity." Whether you call this the spirit of a tea advocate, artist, or entrepreneur, it seems these growers have the vision to turn their small orchards into something much more rewarding.

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